False claims about spelling


Proposals for new teaching methods often include dodgy claims about other methods and English spelling, as in  www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2017/ma...

I could not help but respond to seven points in it.

1.“When children are taught to read and write though (sic) phonics they have to remember many exceptions, so-called 'sight words'. “

- When learning to read English, children have to remember many exceptions, simply because 69 English letters and letter strings have more than one pronunciations (e.g. on – only, once…through - rough, though) - englishspellingproblems.blogsp...

2. “David Crystal estimated that almost half of all English words have unpredictable spellings from the phonics point of view”.

– It was Hannah and Hannah at Stanford in the 1960s who estimated that half of all English words have unpredictable spellings.

I checked this with a close examination of the 7,000 most used English words and found that 4,219 of them have unpredictable spellings:


3. “…phonics is a flawed approach because it mistakenly assumes that the primary purpose of letters is to represent sounds”.

- The primary purpose of using letters is to represent speech sounds in a regular manner, but English spelling often fails to do so (e.g. to do so). That is why phonics is less effective in English than with better spelling systems.

4. “…a fundamental design feature of English spellings is to represent meaning… - spellings are highly consistent once this is appreciated.”

- This implies that there is ‘design’ behind the irregular English spellings.

This is simply not true. It is difficult to know how consistent the first English spelling system (adapted from Latin in the 7th C) was, because very little writing from then still exist and the language has changed enormously.

It is, however, beyond any doubt that English spelling underwent many changes which had nothing whatsoever to do with morphology or phonics:


5. “Consider again the spelling <sign>. This spelling is entirely consistent in all morphologically related words: <sign>, <signing>, <design>, <resign>, even when the pronunciations of the words change, such as <signature> and <designate>.

- A few hundred irregular spellings, mainly ones introduced mainly by Samuel Johnson in 1755, are based on morphology.

Most irregular spellings, however, such as ‘speak, speech’, have no morphological or logical explanation and simply have to be learned word by word (head, many, friends).

6. “They say psychological research shows that memory and learning is best (and most enjoyable) when information is presented in a meaningful format in which children can reason about a subject.”

- How do u present information that is not meaningful (e.g. blue, shoe, flew, through, to, you, two, too) in a meaningful way that children can reason about?

7. "Structured word inquiry …involves teaching children not only about letter-sound correspondences but also the meaningful and logical structure of English spellings.”

- The majority of irregular spellings which make learning to read andwrite English slow and difficult disobey its main letter-soundcorrespondences, and obey no meaningful or logical structure.

Author Profile

Masha  Bell

Masha Bell

Retired teacher of English and modern languages, now literacy researcher and writer

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